Roland Zavada never imagined that he would become a figure in the conspiracy theories that surround the assassination of President Kennedy. And he’s not particularly happy about it.
“I don’t like it at all,” he said.
But the Pittsford resident, a retired Kodak engineer, has found himself the subject of considerable attention by those who remain interested in re-examining the case, from armchair detectives to published authors.
“I am uncomfortable with the authors’ unfounded criticism of my work, while they have limited film technology background,” Zavada added.
In the mid-1990s, Zavada was one of the experts asked by the National Archives to analyze and authenticate all of the photographic evidence relating to the Kennedy assassination. He hoped that it would help to quiet some of the outcry about conspiracies involving the government.
But in spite of those efforts — and perhaps because of them — the conspiracy theories rage on.
The film’s origins
President Kennedy was killed by gunfire 50 years ago today, on Nov. 22, 1963, as his open-top limousine passed through downtown Dallas. Hundreds of onlookers lined the motorcade’s route, but only a handful of bystanders captured Kennedy’s final moments on film.
The most well-known of those is a 26-second clip captured by Abraham Zapruder, a businessman who worked across the street from where Kennedy was killed. Using his home-movie camera loaded with 8mm Kodachrome II, Zapruder caught the president’s motorcade as it drove slowly down Elm Street. The film shows, in graphic and grisly detail, a gunshot striking Kennedy in the head, followed by the motorcade speeding off while first lady Jacqueline Kennedy climbs out of her seat.
Zapruder made three copies of his film, giving two to the Secret Service and selling the other to Life magazine. A week after Kennedy’s death, the magazine ran still images of about 30 frames, giving Americans a stark visual account of what had happened.
But Zapruder insisted that Frame 313 — which showed the gunshot striking JFK’s head — be excluded. He felt that it was too shocking, too graphic, and he wanted to spare the Kennedy family and the public from the graphic violence it depicted.
The film itself remained out of the public eye until March 1975, when it was aired on a late-night ABC news program hosted by Geraldo Rivera. As it played, Rivera remarked, “it’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”
Most Americans agreed, and the airing of the Zapruder film helped fan the flames of conspiracy theorists who saw more nefarious motivations for keeping the clip from public view for so long.
Interest in the assassination and the possibility of a conspiracy persisted for years, but it reached a fever pitch following the 1991 release of the Oliver Stone movie JFK. Stone explored the idea that the CIA and the military-industrial complex conspired to kill the president and orchestrate a massive coverup. It challenged the official conclusion that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for slaying Kennedy.
The film had a compelling cinematic narrative, but critics pointed to a slew of historical inaccuracies, and complained that much of the evidence portrayed in courtroom scenes had been embellished. Among those elements was the Zapruder film, which was at the core of Stone’s story. New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison, portrayed by actor Kevin Costner, shows the film to a jury as definitive proof of a second gunman. He describes the motion of Kennedy’s head …”back, and to the left” … as evidence that shots had been fired by someone other than Oswald, whose position on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building was behind the Kennedy motorcade.
But Stone mixed historical footage with new footage he shot himself, making for a better movie but creating confusion in the public mind about what the Zapruder film actually showed.
Zavada agrees with the critics, complaining that Stone presented a lot of misinformation. “The one significant truth of this movie is that the president was killed. Period.”
The renewed interest created by the film prompted Congress to pass the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (also known as the JFK Act) in 1992 and form the Assassination Records Review Board, or ARRB.
From the beginning, public suspicions had been fueled by the level of secrecy surrounding official investigations, particularly when it came to documents from intelligence and security agencies. The board was charged with finding every piece of evidence that existed, determining which pieces could be declassified, and creating a comprehensive collection at the National Archives.
They also sought to answer some basic questions about the authenticity of some of the artifacts, and for that they turned to the experts at Eastman Kodak Company.
In May of 1996, James Milch, director of the Image Science division at Kodak’s research labs, met with the ARRB to discuss how Kodak could lend its expertise. He recommended two experts to lead the research efforts. (Milch, who is now director of research at Carestream Health, did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.)
The first was Zavada, who even in retirement was the world’s leading expert on the 8mm Kodachrome II film that had been inside Zapruder’s camera on that fateful day. Nobody would be better suited to examining and authenticating the film than Zavada.
Milch also enlisted James Toner, head of Kodak’s R&D Imaging Science Resources Lab, to see whether any of the company’s cutting-edge digital imaging technology could shed new light on the photographic evidence.
Zavada identified two primary objectives for his investigation. First, he looked at the original in-camera Zapruder film to verify its authenticity and determine whether some of the anomalies on the film matched the characteristics of the original film and camera, or whether they were, as some theorized, evidence that the film had been altered or edited.
Although the Zapruder film is the most studied film in history, most people had just seen second- and third-generation copies. Zavada was one of a handful of people to see the original since it came out of Zapruder’s camera.
“I saw it four times, hands on,” Zavada said. “You can tell a lot by feeling the film, in terms of how it’s been stored or kept, whether it’s fluted, whether or not you have edges that have been damaged. You can just feel the perforation.”
By studying the physical characteristics of the film and analyzing the symbols encoded on it, Zavada was able to conclude where the film stock came from.
“One of the things I certified was that Zapruder’s film was made in 1961,” Zavada said. Zavada analyzed the edge print on the film — machine codes that were added to Kodachrome II during the slitting, spooling and perforating process. “I could tell it was finished in Rochester based upon the codes.”
Zavada tracked down the technicians who had developed Zapruder’s film in Dallas hours after the assassination and made copies for the Secret Service. He looked at Zapruder’s camera, and talked to experts at Bell & Howell to understand its characteristics. He concluded that all of the artifacts on the film had been caused by the camera itself. Some of those anomalies weren’t visible on the copies.
He also examined the images that were captured outside of the frame of the film, between the areas punched for sprockets. These images weren’t present on the copies, giving further credence to the authenticity of the original.
Zapruder paused filming at one point. He’d started shooting when a police motorcycle turned down Elm Street and stopped when he realized it wasn’t Kennedy. He resumed filming some time later, when the president’s car first became visible. Some conspiracy theorists suggested the film had actually been spliced.
But Zavada found no evidence of splicing, and instead saw the tell-tale fogging that occurs when a movie camera paused with film in its gate.
Originally intending to spend four days working on his analysis, Zavada spent more than 100, delivering an exhaustive, 150-page report, supplemented with hundreds more pages of notes, appendices and technical documents.
Zavada’s report concluded that Zapruder’s film was an “in camera original” and that any alleged alterations were not feasible. Any attempt at forgery would have left visible artifacts of “image structure constraints of grain; [and] contrast and modulation transfer function losses. It has no evidence of optical effects or matte work including granularity, edge effects or fringing, [or] contrast buildup.”
Zavada concluded that the Zapruder film that the ARRB had was the original and that it had not been tampered with.
“I knew the variability that was in 8mm film,” Zavada said. “Film is not precise. It has variables because it is a plastic medium. You don’t cut, you shear. You’re either punching holes or you’re slitting. I knew the difficulty of positioning. I headed the committees on 16 and 8mm technology for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.”
“If somebody had altered the film,” Zavada said from his Pittsford home last week, “they had to do it in a way that I couldn’t see.”
The ARRB asked Toner, head of Kodak’s R&D Imaging Science Resources Lab, to look at the photographic evidence they had collected and see whether the cutting-edge digital technology could help glean any new information.
“I looked at the collection of images to see if there were ways to scan them in and break them down for image analysis,” said Toner, now retired from Kodak and living in Connecticut.
Toner’s team used high-powered scanners to digitize the images. “If you scan it in digitally, you can use filters and other tools to detect things that the naked eye can’t see.”
And Toner said they did detect some anomalies, particularly in the autopsy photos, bringing out some detail that had not been visible. But it’s not clear whether those details help shed new light on the case.
“You might be able to see that there’s a bump on Kennedy’s forehead, but that detail doesn’t tell you anything about how the bump got there. Maybe it happened when they were putting him on the stretcher.”
Toner took great pains to document the steps he took in his analysis so that future researchers could re-create his work. “Current computers are very close to the cutting-edge tools we used in 1997,” Toner said.
Looking back, Toner believes that the work he and Zavada did helped to answer a number of questions and address some of the issues raised by conspiracy theorists. “Some of the researchers who looked at these documents were not honest and forthright,” he said.
Toner says that some level of uncertainty is always going to persist, that people will always try to scrutinize minute details of the assassination to prove what really happened.
“I think we learned a lot and showed people some things that they didn’t know before,” Toner says. “But we didn’t answer every question, and it’s not clear that we ever will.”
Zavada’s work has been the focus of criticism in several conspiracy-theory books. Harrison Livingstone’s book, The Hoax of the Century: Decoding the Forgery of the Zapruder Film doubles down on the author’s contention that the footage was altered, edited after the fact to conform to the single gunman theory and hide what really happened.
A 2013 book by James Fetzer, The Great Zapruder Film Hoax, makes similar claims. Both try to discredit Zavada’s work, criticizing the tests he ran as inconclusive or inaccurate, and offering a laundry list of different tests he ought to have been performed. Neither author has any expertise in film, but that doesn’t stop them from pointing to factors that they interpret as evidence of foul play.
There have been just as many books written attempting to debunk the conspiracy theories, from Vincent Bugliosi’s 1,600-page magnum opusReclaiming History (with an accompanying CD containing thousands more pages of appendices) to Gerald Posner’s optimistically titled Case Closed. But those books do nothing to dissuade those who are convinced that there was a conspiracy.
In his book Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies, Arthur Goldwag examines the process that lays the foundation for seeing conspiracies.
“When something momentous happens, everything leading up to and away from the event seems momentous, too. Even the most trivial detail seems to glow with significance,” Goldwag writes. “Caught up in the press and stress of a catastrophe, we grope for a significance that’s proportionate to the gravity of the events, seizing on whatever clues we can discern for ourselves. … Our minds look for patterns that conform with how we think the world works.”
Why do people believe in highly improbable conspiracy theories? Toner believes it’s human nature to connect the dots of random events and create meaningful patterns.
“When somebody is afraid of something, they’re not going to look at it rationally, they’re not going to look at it logically. When you don’t know with certainty what occurred, the natural tendency for people is to fill in the gaps with their worst fears,” he said.
Zavada believes that the extreme amount of secrecy around the investigation, particularly in its earliest stages, was largely responsible for creating doubt.
“When the Zapruder film was first sent to Washington, it went to the National Photographic Interpretation Center, a top CIA facility designed when we began doing satellite reconnaissance. Consequently, they handled it as a top secret item. Why would you take murder investigation evidence and make it top secret?”
The central goal of the ARRB was to declassify every piece of evidence, and to set a strict time limit on those that they decided should remain classified. “The few records that remained sealed will be release in about a year and a half, and we’ll see what was there,” Zavada said. “I know some of what was there, and none of it is going to be too significant or upsetting.”
‘That’s a Wrap’
Zavada will be one of the speakers at the annual JFK Lancer conference taking place in Dallas this week. It’s an organization of researchers interested in the Kennedy assassination, most of whom believe that the case should still be open and research ongoing because the truth has not yet been revealed.
He intends for his appearance there to mark the end of his involvement with the case. His presentation will be titled “Authentication: That’s a Wrap!”
“The goal of this trip is to wrap it up, put it behind me, and turn over all of my materials to the National Archives.”